Red tape in the time of IT

Print edition : December 11, 1999

The idea behind the creation of a Ministry of Information Technology appears to be conceptually flawed: a bureaucratic behemoth may not be the agency best suited to facilitate the growth of this sector.

SEVENTEEN months after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee gave a call to make India an "Information Technology Superpower" and one of the largest generators and exporters of software in the world within 10 years, the Government created a Ministry of Inf ormation Technology (MIT) in October 1999.

However, is the new Ministry, with all its bureaucratic trappings, the agency best suited to provide the much-needed push for IT and facilitate the growth of this sector, as envisaged by a high-power National Task Force on IT and Software Development tha t was constituted the very day Vajpayee gave the call. The impression has gained ground that the Ministry was created in order to kill two birds with one stone: to handle the pressure from the Indian Administrative Service lobby to overcome stagnanation in its upper rungs, and to pander to post-election forces and exigencies.

The 20-member Task Force was constituted on May 22, 1998. Among its tasks was to recommend, within a month, steps that the government must take to remove bottlenecks in the growth of IT, and to formulate a draft national policy on informatics. The Task F orce was chaired by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Jaswant Singh, and co-chaired by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and former Union Minister for Science and Technology Prof M.G.K. Menon. National Informatics Centre Director-Gener al Dr. N. Seshagiri, the chief architect of the initiative, was its convenor.

On July 4, 1998, the Task Force came out with its first basic document, IT Action Plan I (ITAP-I). This document identified both impediments in and promotional measures for the growth of IT and made 108 recommendations to make India an IT superpower. Thi s was followed by two other documents. The first, ITAP-II, which was submitted on October 26, 1998, focussed on IT hardware. And ITAP-III, released on April 16, 1999, focussed on a long-term national IT policy. The recommendations were notified in the ga zette on July 25, 1998. This seemed to signal a governmental commitment to developing the IT sector.

Significantly, these initiatives notwithstanding, a recent report of the United States Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy titled "Information Technologies in the Development Strategies of Asia" did not include India among the Asian coun tries that it studied. The report looked at the Newly Industrialised Economies (NIEs) - Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and Korea - and China. India figured here only in connection with Singapore's participation in the setting up of an IT Park in B angalore in 1995, which was expanded in 1997 "specifically to take advantage of India's 140,000 low-cost computer programmers". The objective of the report was to assess the evolution of the new global competitive paradigm and to enable the U.S. to formu late its economic and technological policy and strategies for global cooperation and competition accordingly. Although the report's focus was largely on hardware, its approach would suggest that India, notwithstanding its claimed competitive software cap ability, was not of strategic importance in the U.S. perspective.

The simple reason for this could be that while India does contribute substantially to meeting the U.S' "new big deficit" in software professionals through manpower export, IT policy instruments that are in place in the country leave much to be desired. T he Task Force has completed its tasks, but the political momentum that was evident initially seems to have died down. In fact, there has been no political action on ITAP-II and ITAP-III, which were accepted by the government in principle.

THE presidential notification of October 15 on the creation of the Ministry, the allocations of business of the MIT on October 20 and the likelihood of turf battles among the Ministries on which the MIT will have a bearing (evident from the pronouncement s by Ministers) have only served to cause confusion and uncertainty.

In effect, the Ministry is nothing but a "renamed" Department of Electronics (DoE) with "an expanded role". The October 15 notification said that the MIT's resposibility would include "promotion of knowledge-based enterprises, ... promotion of the Intern et, ... promotion of e-commerce, ... promotion of IT education and IT-based education," the "National Informatics Centre" and the "Electronics and Computer Software Export Promotion Council". The notification is poorly phrased, for the last two are indep endent institutions, the former under the Planning Commission and the latter under the Commerce Ministry, and not activities like the others, which the Ministry can help promote.

The phrasing of the 'allocations of business', in the notification of October 20, is even worse. It states: "The nomenclature of the Department of Electronics (DoE) stands substituted by the Ministry of Information Technology with immediate effect." The list of items of business of the MIT in the notification retains some items of business of the erstwhile DoE that are meaningless today, given the paradigm changes that have occurred. It incorporates illogical combinations of functions, such as "coordina tion of requirements relating to electronics processing equipment (computers)", "all matters pertaining to silicon facility", "all matters concerning computer-based information, technology and processing including hardware and software, standardisation o f procedures and matters relevant to international bodies such as IFIP, IBI and ICC." In point of fact, the expression "electronics processing equipment" would cover much more than just computers, the phrase "silicon facility" is meaningless, and the las t entry makes no sense; in addition, two of the three international bodies mentioned do not exist any more.

It is clear that someone who knows little about electronics or IT has done a cut-and-paste job after the first notification of October 15 was issued. The entire exercise is indicative of things to come, complete with the bureaucratic baggage that accompa nies the creation of a full-fledged Ministry. On DoE stationery the expression "Department of Electronics" has been replaced by "Ministry of Information Technology", and the DoE Web site is now the MIT Web site. These are only indications that the reorga nised structure is at work. The officials and scientists are unclear what their new functions are.

The new Secretary, P.V. Jayakrishnan, IAS, who replaced Ravindra Gupta, is still familiarising himself with the Department's activities. There is uncertainty about what the MIT can or cannot do, particularly in the light of the fact that Communications M inister Ram Vilas Paswan and Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran are unwilling to give up their control over policy matters relating to the Internet (which are currently in the domain of the Department of Telecommunications) and e-commerce and software expo rts.

It is likely that service bureaucrats will play an active role in the Ministry. The DoE was one of the first scientific departments in which an IAS officer replaced a technical person as its Secretary. Bureaucrats will now be waiting to take up positions in the new Ministry. According to observers, the key position of NIC Director-General may become a casualty. Dr. Seshagiri has thus far kept the NIC away from bureaucratic control and for this reason has not endeared himself to some bureaucratic pressur e groups. But he is due to retire in seven months.

Informed sources in the DoE say that Dr. Seshagiri, who has the rank of Special Secretary, may have initially favoured the creation of a Ministry in the hope of becoming its Secretary. In the event, however, the bureaucrats got the better of him. Dr.Sesh agiri was apparently slighted at the first meeting held after the erstwhile DoE Secretary Ravindra Gupta, IAS, took over as Secretary in the MIT (consequent on the creation of the Ministry). Every officer present introduced himself or herself: Dr.Seshagi ri introduced himself as NIC Director-General and Special Secretary to the Government. To this, one officer is reported to have said that there was now only one Secretary to the Ministry and no Special Secretaries. Indeed, the NIC's status has been reduc ed to that of an "attached office" of the MIT: Dr. Seshagiri has to report to the Secretary, and administrative matters regarding the NIC are being handled by a Joint Secretary of the MIT. Such dilution of the NIC's autonomy could prove counterproductive to the development of the IT sector, feel observers.

THE appointment of Pramod Mahajan as Minister for Information Technology is seen as a move to assuage the Bharatiya Janata Party leader who had to give up the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Mahajan heads another high-profile Ministry - Parliament ary Affairs. Indeed, during his first meeting with MIT officials, he is reported to have said that he was still to familiarise himself with the various aspects of IT and so could not immediately clarify the functions of the Ministry. More significantly, he is reported to have said that many important pieces of legislation were to be come up during the winter session of Parliament, and his responsibilities as Parliamentary Affairs Minister would preclude him from devoting time to his new portfolio for a couple of months.

Minister for Information Technology Pramod Mahajan.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Mahajan's remark in Mumbai subsequently that the MIT would only be a facilitator and not a regulator has been welcomed guardedly by Dr. Seshagiri, because this aspect is in tune with the Task Force recommendations. However, some of Mahajan's other uttera nces have confused matters. Just what he meant when he said that the MIT is a "no-budget Ministry" and that IT could have been part of other Ministries such as I&B or Communications is not clear. Since the organisational structure - for example, the rela tionship and role of the NIC (which has more technical staff than the DoE) vis-a-vis the rest of the Ministry - is vague and both the Minister and the Secretary are still "familiarising themselves", even routine business, such as licensing or leasing of bandwidth capacity to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), might come to a halt, feel insiders. Will new applicant s have to route their applications through the MIT? Similarly, once the proposed "cyber law", which is to be introduced during the winter session, is passed, which will be the implementing agency - the MIT or the Commerce Ministry (since many of the prov isions of the the proposed bill relate to e-commerce) or the Communications Ministry (since the law has also to do with data security, encryption and so on)?

Apart from these issues, the fundamental question of whether there is any need for an administrative structure of a full-fledged Ministry has not been answered. Technologies in respect of computers, communication and broadcasting are converging at a rapi d pace. With digital technologies being the cornerstone of virtually every conceivable activity, the component of software, namely, processing of digital information, in equipment is increasing and plain hardware is becoming less functional.

With the increasing penetration of computers in every area, the day-to-day functioning of organisations, public or private, has become IT-oriented. Because of this, the interaction of the public with the government too has become IT-based, be it in banki ng and other financial transactions, public transport or bill payments. E-governance is the buzzword today (Frontline, December 10). The need for an administrative body within the government that coordinates the IT-component in all sectors and pro motes increased use of IT, which translates into greater efficiency of operations, is being increasingly felt. But is a Ministry the best administrative structure that can achieve this?

INFORMED sources in the industry concede that there is a need for a catalytic agent or an enabling body to promote IT growth, but feel that a Ministry would only add another bureaucratic layer to the already cumbersome process of securing approvals. They claim that the DoE was more a hindrance than a favourable agent for the growth of electronics. If anything, they say, it was restrictive policies that killed the computer hardware industry. They are not entirely convinced by Mahajan's remark that the MI T would not "regulate" the industry; in their view, a bureaucratic hierarchy will imply greater regulation and more paperwork. If IT is to grow, the government should keep out of it, they feel.

In the perspective of people engaged in electronics R&D and industry, the field involves much more than R&D. The mere fact that there is embedded software in every piece of electronic equipment does not make it IT, they say. For example, how can one just ify calling High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC), a major field under the DoE that uses power electronic devices called thyristors, constitute IT and come under MIT? Or for that matter, how can the entire field of radar development or strategic electronics or microwave research under SAMEER, an important activity of DoE, be regarded as IT? Or Standards, Testing and Quality Control (STQC) activity of DoE? In fact, there is a whole range of conventional electronics hardware in the country that is under thre at of being wiped out in the wake of impending duty reductions consequent on the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) arrived at under the World Trade Organisation regime. The consequence, they fear, would be a marginalisation and eventual closure of t hese important activities.

SCIENTISTS at the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST), an R&D centre under the DoE (now under the MIT) in Mumbai, feel that some facilitating body that would support IT R&D was certainly necessary, because IT was not considered part of the Dep artment of Science and Technology (DST) and the DoE had never actively supported R&D in IT. For India to be a dominant player, research and IT education should have been given importance.

The reports of the Task Force too have taken a very narrow vision of IT growth in the country. They have looked at an unrealistic linear model, chiefly from the perspective of growth in earnings from IT services and body shopping, a euphemism for softwar e capability, whereas the ultimate strength in software would come from software packages and application software where there is a dearth of expertise. So, the scientists say, it would be good if some agency - whether it is a Ministry or some other stru cture - facilitated funding of research and education in IT. But if it is supposed to be a "no-budget Ministry" or a merely renamed structure, it will get nowhere, they say.

The members of the Task Force did not in fact recommend a ministerial structure. The original notification from the Prime Minister's Office that constituted the Task Force said: "The task force will recommend an appropriate empowered institutional mechan ism to implement the national informatics policy as a national mission with the participation of the Central and State governments, industry, academic institutions, and the society at large." Accordingly, given the convergence of technologies and informa tion based functionalities, ITAP-III recommended an organisational structure in order to facilitate the coherence in planning and implementation of IT-related activities.

THE organisational structure envisaged by the Task Force included a key adviser on IT in the PMO in order to give proper emphasis and focus to this area and a separate division in the Planning Commission with an IT adviser. At the level of each departmen t and Ministry, it recommended that there be a Chief Informatics Officer with the responsibility to design, develop and implement information processing and retrieval systems. These were to be supported by a High Level Apex Committee on IT comprising nat ional and international IT experts and "enablers" who would assist in the process of defining and implementing the IT vision. "This structure," the Task Force said, "will be insulated from changes at the political level and also will have the credibility and authority to see the process of planning and implementation to its logical conclusion." Clearly, the Task Force did not have a Ministry on its mind.

A senior scientist at the NIC said: "One hopes that this is a temporary phase. You cannot expect entrenched structures to give results. New nucleating centres that emerge have to be separated from these. The Government should have no role besides focussi ng on convergence and facilitation."

According to the scientists, instead of creating a Ministry, one of three options could have been considered: 1. establishing an empowered development council; 2. establishing a Commission such as the Commissions on electronics, telecommunication or spac e but without a department; and 3. a notification that IT industry be decontrolled, deregulated and open-ended. He also felt that the DST should be responsible for R&D in IT and that in order to minimise R&D investment in the government sector it should ensure that R&D efforts are not duplicated. "It should only serve to create an R&D platform of national factor advantage, from which industry can take off," he said.

Prof. M.G.K. Menon said that IT was "all-pervasive, and a colonial structure like a Ministry is hardly suited" to facilitate IT growth. ''Merely renaming the DoE a Ministry with a few appendages "cannot work and this is not what we recommended," he added . "A suitable enabling structure has to be evolved. Our experience with Commissions suggests that even a Commission may not be the correct structure. We have to look at new forms of structures that bring together the IT component in all sectors, includin g education, health and agriculture. But the government has shown little interest in our reports after the first one was submitted. The other reports have not seen the light of day."

In the opinion of Dr. Ashok Parthsarathi, who was among the first to bring to the government's attention the need for an IT policy, the Planning Commission "has all the necessary structure and authority to fund, focus and implement IT-related strategies which cut across Ministries and regions." He had advocated a structure for India along the lines of the Chinese model which, he feels, is eminently workable for India.

As it stands, the MIT is quite different from what people at various levels feel is the most appropriate administrative structure; the new Ministry has created a climate of uncertainty in respect of IT growth in the country as the world enters a new mill ennium which will be knowledge- and information-driven. The creation of the Ministry seems to be conceptually flawed. Under these circumstances, will the dream of India as an IT superpower ever become real?

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